Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Dignitas Perdidit

"Yesterday" Douglas Tavern, Douglas, Ontario
"If in dignitas you include the power of translating those loyal feelings into action or of defending them with complete freedom, then ne vestigium quidem ullum est reliquum nobis dignitatis [not even a trace is left to us of our dignity]." ~ Cicero, 46 BC

Dignitas Perdidit is roughly translated as Dignity Lost. But that's not quite right. While the word dignitas does not have a direct translation into English, the Oxford Latin Dictionary defines the expression as fitness, suitability, worthiness, visual impressiveness or distinction, dignity of style and gesture, rank, status, position, standing, esteem, importance, and honor.

Julius Caesar structured his whole life on his personal dignitas. People in those years were known to send themselves into exile, even oft themselves (RIP Marcus Antonius), and destroy the reputation of others (that would be you, Marcus Claudius Marcellus) in order to preserve or grow their dignitas. Such is the power of a single word.

The use of words carries the ever-present danger of possible cultural, gender-based, racial or political misinterpretations. What was right and just and honorable even in our parents' time (when the term family wasn't so often prefaced by the word dysfunctional) may be a completely different animal today. Antiquated terms, like yesterday's leftovers, have different meanings in the light of a new day. The above photo (taken by my niece Alison), while admittedly quaint, appropriately tattered and obviously sexist was seen back then as a sign of respect. (In the village tavern there was one door for rowdy, dust covered, profanity-spewing men, and another door for a more sophisticated couple out to enjoy a social evening. The fact that both doors most often lead to the same room was incidental.) If you look up the word escorts in the phone book today, you'll find an entirely different meaning (for every want, personal bent and budget).

What was a word just hanging out behaving itself yesterday becomes one with an identity crisis. The word brave was once used to signify cowardice. Awful meant ‘full of awe’ i.e. something wonderful, delightful, amazing. Nice, derived from the Latin ‘not to know’, originally meant ignorant. Gay used to mean light-hearted and carefree. A dick was a detective.

And not too long ago a computer was a person who worked with numbers and did a lot of calculations. Facebook was a high school yearbook. And you heard birds twitter in the merry wood. Bad is now good... or bad.


  1. And sick is no longer just the flu?

    1. Sick is super bad, which evidently is very good. :)